As Above, So Below

Important news from the stars for writers here on earth. Mercury will be retrograde from Halloween until November 20. I had to look at my calendar twice this morning because obstacles are already throwing themselves in my writing path. Luckily, I am in revision mode with the WIP, and Mercury Retrograde is an absolutely awesome time for revision.

Not such a great time for signing contracts or making new electronic purchases. Communication is a bit fraught during Mercury Retrograde, so watch your words, in manuscript and real life. That goes for delivery of mail electronically or through USPS, Amazon or any other kind of mail system.

Yesterday I was determined to get down to business on my WIP. I’ve been doing okay, more or less keeping up with my schedule despite some minor setbacks, but felt it was time to put all the pieces into one pile, read through everything I have, and see what needs to be cut and what still needs to be added.

Got all the various files into one master document and decided to print the whole damn thing out. I’m about halfway through my revisions, and know what still needs to be fixed and written. I even know how I’m going to do it. I have a plan plus notes and an outline. Not flying blind, here.

Was happily printing out my 62K words so far, when things started going !!!!! Literally. Laptop printer icon said !!!!! and printer flashed same !!!!! Also, the last twenty or so pages printed made it clear I needed to change the ink cartridge. Alas, my grand plan was foiled for the moment. And my tech guy (Al) was at the football game. He had recently ordered extra ink cartridges and so even though it was a new printer, and laser not ink jet, I figured I’d try to change the cartridge.

Things did not go well. I figured okay Al will eventually come home and when he gets time he will fix everything for me and I will be humming a happy tune once again. Also, I don’t use the printer on Mondays because I blog and everything is online. Then I remembered I was hosting my book group on Thursday and I needed to shop, clean, and cook before then. So…maybe I can finish what I started on Friday.

As long as things get sorted before Mercury appears to move backward in the sky, I’m good. For more on exactly what Mercury Retrograde is, see Susan’s post here.

Renewing Writing Practices

Reading and journaling these past weeks with Colleen Story’s game changing Writer Get Noticed, so many of my writing plans have come into sharper focus, including how best to adjust my writing practices. Specifically, I’m looking at changing writing routines when my husband retires at the end of the year.

When I finish Jane in St Pete in December, I have no plans for a next novel. Al’s retirement is not the only reason it feels right to take a break from writing novels. Since I’ve been publishing books, I’ve steadily released at least one a year. I noticed a slow down with Lily White in Detroit, my tenth novel.

At first I attributed my decreased output to the added research that comes with writing crime novels, but after studying Colleen’s writer’s self-help guide, I realized I’ve come to a natural stopping point, at least for now, at least as far as writing novels.

As I worked through the illuminating exercises Colleen lays out in a genius step process, I learned that while adjusting to a new life passage that involves fun, travel and moving out of my home state, I still want to keep some portable writing practices. Writing a novel takes a big chunk of time, a room of my own and steady commitment, day after day, month after month.

My life is not going to have those long stretches of time in a writing room, at least not for a year or maybe even longer. Although…I start every day with morning pages, and have done for many years. I won’t give up my journal and gel pen. And I don’t want to give up my fiction writing groups and friends, either.

Short stories helped me fill the gap after Lily White and gave me something to bring to my critique groups. Stories kept my craft skills sharp. And eventually, they led to Jane in St. Pete. Like many writers, I started writing fiction with short stories. I published a few of them, but mostly they were a way to begin to figure out my voice and how to write a narrative.

Things can get stale for me if I keep doing them over and over without hitting refresh, and that happened recently with morning pages. I’d write a half page and sit there with nothing to say. Julia Cameron, who introduced me to morning pages, recommends three pages every morning. That’s still what I shoot for. Answering the questions Colleen poses became a way for me to write not just three pages every morning, but four, five, even six pages. All while discovering what to do next.

I was on fire as I got deeper into the heart of what I really want out of my writing life now. More flexibility. Less sustained attention. Writing I can finish in a couple of hours or days. Long before I began the daily discipline needed for writing novels, I was a blogger. I also published book reviews, personal essays, poetry and short stories. All things I enjoyed and could do around my teaching job.

With the help of Colleen’s therapeutic method of writerly inquiry, I was able to figure out how to keep the writing I love close while figuring out how this new adventurous phase of married life will look in retirement. I have so many new goals. I’m looking forward to finishing Jane and going through the editing process with my publisher’s guidance. I can’t wait to gear up for the marketing aspect of a new release–Colleen also helped me clarify how to do publicity my way.

I’ve learned what does and does not work for me as a writer. I love morning pages, social media, my blog. I especially enjoy giving my website a fresh design, which will happen in 2020 along with that novel I’ve been working on for a while now. 🙂 I’ve still got a ways to go with the novel, but the revision is coming together even as I decide what to pack and what to leave behind on this next great adventure.

How to Fix a Book

Novels are easy to write if you turn off your thinking and dive into the story stream. They might be easy, but the results are not always pretty. Such was the case with my WIP, Jane. I got a first very bad extremely horrible draft done in a couple of months last year.

This year I am revising. Jane needs to be almost completely rewritten, despite the fact that I really kept the first plot I came up with and all the original characters. I had to lose one subplot, snip an annoying thread and significantly improve upon one character. Nobody who read my early draft liked her, they wondered why she was even in the book. I considered cutting her but I couldn’t do it.

I liked her even though I didn’t know her very well. She intrigued me. That was good news but also a problem. I’d written Barb into a short story I wrote after Lily White was finished and I needed something to bring my critique group. I caught a charming criminal and pinned him to the page. It felt effortless. And just as easy to sketch was his foil, an FBI agent who captures him and suggests he change his ways.

Short stories are fun. In and out. None of this hundreds of pages stuff. But novels propel themselves from the inside out and after a few short stories, I had one in me, begging to be let out. And it involved the reformed and relocated criminal. Also, the FBI agent, Barb. Also a few other people, but Barb is the one my critique group was hung up about, she felt like air. How right they were.

In the short story, I’d been able to do quick and dirty FBI research. After months of thinking about it, trying not to think about it, making excuses to myself, and continually running into walls with Barb, I sat down and did my homework. With revision, I have to stop rewriting and do some research, because I don’t do much research in the first draft. When it becomes apparent to me that I need to research, I’ll just take a day to read, jot notes, form a first scene and, most important, adjust my attitude.

When I started Jane, I promised myself it would be a lighter book than Lily White. More caper than crime. Amateur sleuth falls into murder mystery. Sure there was a cop because with murder there’s always a cop. But the FBI? I decided to let Barb be on vacation. No FBI business to attend to. No FBI rules to follow. What I concluded was that Barb’s vacation was in fact my own vacation. From research and the hard work of revising a weak first draft.

When I first begin a novel, I have some set ideas. I have a firm concept of the overall theme. I want this character of this age with this background in this setting. I want X point of view voices. Usually there are at least a few elements I’ve never tried before. I like to challenge myself to try new things with each book.

For this particular book, I was determined to write the whole thing in one point of view. One character tells the entire story. That would be Jane. The problem before me was Jane. She is a law abiding civilian. She knows nothing about the FBI. From Jane’s pov Barb is just a woman in love with her friend who has come to St Pete on vacation. Sure she’s in the FBI but that doesn’t impact the story from Jane’s pov.

You can see where the problem comes in. I had to decide if I wanted to keep trying to stay in one person’s head the entire book. I’d never done it before. I just wanted to see if I could do it. By the end of that excellent FBI book in the featured image photo above, I had a lot of ideas about Barb, none of which I could convincingly convey via Jane. That’s fine. I know enough about revision to stay open to new ideas, to be flexible with my first idea wish list.

So I wrote a scene starring Barb. I like it. I think I just solved several problems, one of the biggest being the book was way too short. It needed a substantial meaty subplot. I’d made a start before I gave Barb a primo role, and it was good. But she’s going to take things up a notch. Sure, now there’s a huge problem I didn’t know about before my research weekend.

But huge problems are conflict by another name and novels thrive on conflict. Almost the minute I cracked open the book, I read this FBI mantra “Never fall in love with your informant.” In fact, agents are not allowed to socialize in any way with informants. It apparently always leads to tears. The pages I’d written for Barb on vacation and in love with George blew up and scattered around me like gleeful confetti.

Fine. I already knew this was a major rewrite. Now I at least have an idea how to fix it. And more conflict. Always a good thing.

Spring Cleaning for Writers

My kitchen counters are cluttered with the contents of my pantry. This is good news for a couple reasons. One ~ If I’m cleaning, I must be over the flu that hit our house just before the holiday weekend. Two ~ If I’m ready to tackle my pantry, my WIP revision will be a piece of cake.

Not that I’m eating cake. The flu helped me get through a week without sugar. I must continue to resist sweets if I want my blood sugar results to come back clean at end of June. I want to stay off diabetes medication. I fear it may be too little too late, nevertheless I will abide by these new rules my body demands. I need to be healthy as possible to write this book.

I had flu, but I wrote anyway. It feels as if I am rewriting the book from scratch, that’s how much this second draft is changing. But in truth, I’m only rearranging the words on the pages like food on my pantry shelves. I’m getting rid of expired items and building a new and better structure to support the parts I keep.

My house, my health and my book are coming together. It’s springtime and my worlds, both fictive and real, are beginning to bloom.

My Revision Process

Organizing Revision

I write a first draft with no revision. Just flat out write it. I finished my current WIP “Jane” in November 2018. Then it was Christmas. Then I went to Florida for six weeks. During this time I kept pulling chapters to feed to my critique group, even though they were first draft. I would not recommend that. By the time I settled back into my writing routine, months had gone by and I had a big mess of a manuscript with many many suggestions for improvement on the first five chapters from my writing group.

After writing an unfiltered and thus awful first draft, I like to let it sit for a bit and simmer. I left it a little too long this time and showed it too soon and the result was a mess. But I knew my next step. I like to read the entire book in a day (or two) making brief revision notes as I go. Before I could do the read-through, I had to organize those first five chapters and get things coherent. So I did a little more than the usual. I went over the five chapters, incorporating suggestions I liked. I outlined every scene, and made a summary for my critique partners, because we only meet once a month, plus the six week break was in there and people forget.

It took a few days just to get that first chunk in order, but I’m happy I did it instead of just reverting to the uncritiqued original. I also liked outlining the scenes. I felt organized enough to go ahead and read the rest of the book. It took two days, not one, but the thing is to have my whole book in my head. The entire plot needs to be clear to me so I can figure out what went wrong, how to fix it, and where in the manuscript those fixes need to be inserted.

I didn’t outline the rest of the manuscript when I did the read-through. I did make brief notes to myself about the changes I wanted to make. I knew I had a crap bad guy so I was able to come up with a semi-solution for that and I even figured out the final twist at the end. Mystery novels often have a sting in the tail that is the final surprising twist. I got that in the read through, surprising even myself, because I usually struggle with that. Jane the book and Jane the character both need more work, the crime story itself needs some work, but that’s fine because now I will go back and outline the entire book and find those places where I need to up the stakes, delete the nonsense (an entire character this time) and fill out Jane. At this point, I also revise the character list of names and places.

The other problem I’ve been thinking about is that the book is in first person point of view (Jane’s). But two random chapters are in other voices. I contemplated changing the whole thing to third person and adding other points of view, but then decided to keep it in first person and try to figure out how to do those other pov chapters later. Not sure I’ve ever told an entire book from one first person point of view. But it feels right this time. So much of revising is just hearing the click in your head that signals “yes, this.”

After I outline everything, I look at the structure and make sure my turning points, my big moments, are in the most effective places. Jenny Crusie taught me about turning points. (And so much more). She has an entire blog about writing and revising a novel. It’s extremely helpful. I always go looking for Jenny when I am in revision mode because she always has the exact answer I need, even when I didn’t know I needed it.

All that done, I read the book again. I add the scenes I didn’t write but that need to be in the story. I add dimension to characters who lack it (Jane needs a bit of help and my bad guy needs a lot). Then I read the book again to make sure everything tracks. At this point, I do a timeline. It starts when the book starts and ends when the book ends. I buy a calendar with big blank squares as they are dirt cheap right now. After I do all that, I read the book again to make sure the added scenes flow, that Jane is as heroically flawed as I can make her and that my bad guy is terrifying. I’ll have to add things and take stuff out. When I’m happy, I’ll do one more read through. (Ha.)

I polish sloppy sentences and look for inconsistencies. An example of an inconsistency is Jane has two grown children. She’s also a granny. (I was scared to write a granny as a main character in a crime novel but then I decided to do it because I wish more crime novels had aging female characters who have actual families. Also I like writing what scares me. “Too scary” is like a clue to the writer that you are on the right track.) So inconsistencies. My example: Jane’s kids and their families live on different coasts. Every time I mention a family member of one or the other I have to make sure they’re in the right city. This is one reason why annotated character lists are helpful.

After all that I am pretty sick of my book. I love it but I need to let it sit and rest for a week or so. Then I read it again and hope I don’t have to use my pen. Most of the time I do find more things to fix. When I start taking out commas that I put in on the previous edit, I know I’m done. Then I mail it to my editor and she and I go through a few more edits together. I hope I am lucky enough to have the same editor I’ve had for the last several books, because I have gotten good at anticipating what she’ll have problems with, and she’s always right.

If there’s a way to not be messy in revision, I have not found it. The most difficult thing is to dive in when it’s just chaos in a stack of paper. It feels good when I tame all that down to pretty folders for research, old drafts, current pages, critique group, to-be-revised and my favorite, finished chapters. I have a free download of my writing manual on the landing page here. I used it for my students when I taught creative writing. There’s a chapter on revision. I should probably read that myself.